viernes, 29 de enero de 2016

A Reflection On The Annals Of Imperial Rome by Publius Cornelius Tacitus

History changes when it is re-read. The casual reader, as opposed to the historian, always reads history with one eye on the present: there is always comparison at work whenever we reflect on events we assume are faithfully recorded from the past. And this past is not itself fixed, since our appreciation of it has already been formed as an amalgam of contemporary interpretations. On re-reading Tacitus, therefore, the reader is also feeding from lasting impressions formed by Cecil B DeMille, Gladiator, I Claudius. Julius Caesar, Lindsay Davis, Spartacus and Caligula, at least.

But Tacitus set for himself a different task from that which the contemporary reader appreciates, in that he saw himself as merely a recorder, year by year, of the important events that affected the public life of the empire. Tacitus seems largely unconcerned with ordinary people, except where collective opinion bore down on those with power or influence or, indeed, to record where those everyday folk unlucky enough to be left in residence at the end of a siege were summarily slaughtered. Neither, by and large, do slaves figure, except when they are paid or cajoled to act above their pay grade.

Tacitus is interested in emperors, consuls, politicians in general, military leaders, armies, rich socialites and influential foreigners, especially enemies. The Annals of Imperial Rome thus catalogues internal intrigue and external warfare and records how both impinged on a society we continue, despite much of the evidence, to label ‘civilised’.

It was not an age where prisoners were taken, unless they could be sold. Within these pages there is much blood letting, many wars, and some fascinating detail on the myriad ways human beings can set about killing one another. Current horror genres could learn much from Tacitus, since the blend of blood and drama is unrelenting. This was also an age of ceremony, where gods had to be pacified, oracles consulted and diviners believed. Of course, if you chose not to believe the soothsayers, you could always have them killed. Served them right, one supposes. Never deliver a story you think might not be received gratefully. There will always be consequences.

But within these pages ceremony was often the determining factor. It could not be by-passed. And of course, being civilised, Romans maintained respect for the law. Murder, for instance, was always culpable, but when committed by bovver-boy emperors, no doubt tattooed to their little boots, the crime often went unpunished. Towns where only the old, the female and the young remained after siege were of course subjected to mass slaughter, because none of those left could possibly fight back. Just how important constitutional means were to these living gods is illustrated by a fall from grace whose consequence was the elimination of the offender’s entire family, just in case… In a particular case this also meant doing away with a couple of young daughters, but at the last minute an official noted that the law banned the execution of virgins. Not wanting to stand on ceremony, the executioner was invited to rape them first and then carry out his duty. Must do things properly… Presented with the severed head of a rival, offered as proof that instruction have been dutifully carried out, Nero calmly observed that the fellow had started to go grey.

But what also must be borne in mind is that Tacitus, himself, was no contemporary observer. His productive life was more than a generation later than any of the events described in The Annals, whose stories begin half a century earlier than that. So it is possible that the reported sexual acts in public, the free and almost communal use of prostitutes and the general contempt for almost everything below elite status was just exaggeration. It might just be that contemporary mores required a vilification of the past, and that Tacitus was willing to provide it. Pigs, apparently, do fly.

A stunning juxtaposition comes in a comparison of two reported cases. One poor chronicler historian had the cheek to suggest that Brutus and Cassius might not have been all bad, despite their having murdered an emperor. The author, of course, signed his own death sentence. A games promoter, on the other hand, built a stadium that in the event collapsed, killing and maiming thousands. His punishment was a limited exile, the judgment doubt influenced by the fact that it was only the plebs who suffered.

During The Annals, we perhaps begin to wonder why we read history and, indeed, why it is written. By the time we have finished this account, we surely know. The modern country seems to be a feeble invention when compared to the more durable empire, which itself can be remarkably transient. Empires exist to pursue conflict with other empires, usually at the periphery, but with the aim of maintaining stability at the centre, where there is a constant struggle for power. So while plotters were being uncovered and eliminated in Rome, the great external threat at the end of this era came from the Parthian Empire. In anyone does not recall the location of the Parthian Empire, please do check it out. And then re-read history.

jueves, 28 de enero de 2016

A Few Chapters on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen by Laurence Sterne

Chapter One – The Plot

Well, gentlefolk, at least that’s out of the way!

Chapter Two – The Characters

Young Tristram Shandy, so unfortunately misnamed, is so young he’s still in the womb. He doesn’t even condescend to appear until volume three! This means he writes a bagful of pages before he even has access to paper, pen and inkhorn. But there is his good father and perhaps better mother, who at the outset suffer the ignominy of being depicted clock-winding.  There’s Uncle Toby, who has a passion for fortifications. In fact, verily indeed, whatever compass point provides the direction for whatever conversation, up will pop Uncle Toby and let off about mullions, parapets and ´scarpments. And don’t expect any assistance with vocabulary! Toby’s servant Trim and a forgetful maid called Susannah complete the cast. But there are others everywhere walking in and out of the tale, a farce acted through the momentary opening of doors, a trip to France and an occasional visit to the parlour for a pipe or a snifter.

Chapter Three – The Style

There will be no chapter three. The greatest of all philosophers, the very Slawkenbergius, assures us that the inclusion of third chapters inevitably lowers to tone of a tome, so these notes will have no chapter three, just to repeat what was said earlier. Thus, as a result of this pontification that we may not cross, this particular chapter three does not exist and is hereby deferred until chapter LXVIII of volume six.

Chapter Four – Noses

We all have one, we are told. Restating this perhaps more precisely, so that the good Doctor Hume might not be tempted to issue his objections, we all have the potential to possess one. But nose possessors beware! Be they long and judgmentally wagging, heavy and lewd or retroussé and apologetic, no nose is safe when the infant must be drawn forth into the world with newfangled assistance such as metal forceps.  Imagine the relative frailty of the protrusion compared to the grip of metal tongs! And if the child be a male, let that be the end of it! Or perhaps the end off it…

Chapter Five – The Moral

Morals were always questionable. And since there is nothing left to say on the matter, let’s let chapter five be the same as chapter four. Except let us also include reference to nonsense, absurdity, Monty Python, Cervantes, Rabelais and perhaps anyone else who cares to call in. Including the young Tristram Shandy, gentlemen, the poor unfortunate lad whose memoir this reported ‘novel’ claims to be. Hilarity also must look in to confirm the status of masterpiece, a status obviously to be achieved the moment the redoubtable author, one Laurence Sterne, placed his pen upon paper in Shandy’s name. And let it also be said, that, despite its two and a half centuries of age, the memoir may sound surprisingly modern, if the word Pythonesque be validly employed. Not all readers might be of the opinion, but in the end, what does it matter?

Chapter Six – The End and The Plot Again

So that’s it! The end. Please have a look at my website.

A Pair Of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

A Pair Of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy was first published in the eighteen seventies. It is a romance of the Romantic era. A cursory glance from today’s perspective might suggest that the book has little to say about our own time, and that its significance, if it retains one, is purely historical. It could thus be read purely as a nineteenth century tale of manners, suitors, marriage pursued and formalised via the route of platonic encounter. But Thomas Hardy, if he be nothing else, was always a keen observer of social mores, airs and graces, and so A Pair Of Blue Eyes provides for the contemporary reader and intriguing picture of life as it might have been lived a century and a half ago. Where Hardy’s novel certainly does speak to our own times, however, is in its portrayal of social class in English society.

Elfride is an attractive young woman. She is middle class and apparently worried beyond her years that she may already be on the shelf. She is portrayed as rather fickle, sometimes less than focused, thoroughly aware of her social face, but strangely self-obsessed at the same time. She seems permanently to be analysing whom she might marry, and for what reason, but often from a standpoint of her own perceived standing. Her parents are keen that any suitor should possess commensurate status and have sufficient assets or prospects. This is where a young man called Stephen Smith falls short.

Stephen has as yet made neither a name nor a fortune. We learn that he is well educated, but has followed a curriculum far removed from that prescribed as a social passport by the prestigious schools. He is of low birth, since his father is nothing more than a manual labourer. Even a status elevated to that of the self-employed late in the story cannot make amends for having spent most of a working life as a mere employee. Elfride, however, seems to be besotted with Stephen Smith. He is of her age, and somewhat the wiser of the two. She is young, inexperienced, retiring but determined, and not a little myopic. They decide to elope when Elfride’s family declare their opposition. The couple travel to London by train, an act that in itself could easily compromise Elfride’s future marriage prospects, but Elfride immediately has second thoughts she declares she wants to return to England’s west country on the next train out of Paddington. Stephen insists on doing the right thing and accompanies her to preserve her safety. Stephen decides he must make his way in life before Elfride or, more importantly, her parents will accept him. Elfride declares she will wait, faithfully.

Thomas Hardy tells us that “…when women are secret they are secret indeed; and more often than not they only begin to be secret with the advent of a second lover.” Elfride does not seem to be too secret about anything when Mr Knight appears on the scene. He is a decade older than her, rather stiff and correct, but also solvent. With Stephen away, out of sight becomes almost out of mind and things duly progress.

There is a strange episode when Elfride saves Knight’s life on a cliff top. We are reminded perhaps that this is more soap than opera when there is an even stranger episode when Elfride is, conveniently for the plot, blamed for the death of a young lad who, unknown to her, became obsessed for distance. There is always a need to write letters in romantic novels. Characters always need to commit their thoughts, requests and accusations to paper. And, in an age without instant communication, words thus committed to the permanence of paper can be read, and also re-read or misread by anyone who cares to scan them. And so when Knight presses Elfride on her past, words both spoken and written are misunderstood and misinterpreted.

Stephen returns and meets Knight. Stephen has been in India and has done well for himself. Here is another truth of the time in that it is easier to climb socially via the colonies. In the end there are surprises for both men and for the reader as life takes all the characters along paths they believed to be familiar but eventually lead them into unknown territory.

“Of course; a sensible woman would rather lose her wits than her beauty,” is another of Hardy’s gender musings, an area where the book might grate with many a modern reader. But equally there is much in A Pair Of Blue Eyes that remains familiar. Even that last quoted opinion retains significance in an age that is perhaps more obsessed with personal appearance than any other, an age where cosmetic surgery transforms bodies as commonly as wisdom changes minds. Thomas Hardy’s novel ought to remind us that there are perhaps some universal truths, despite the fact that their appearance may change.

martes, 26 de enero de 2016

Development As Freedom by Amartya Sen

Perhaps not many people regularly read non-fiction, especially when it might appear to emanate from academic sources. Thus a title such as Development As Freedom by Amartya Sen, if encountered on a book browse, might suffer immediate and regrettable rejection. Subjects such as international politics, economic change and human development considered via the writings of a Nobel Prize winning economist might not suggest bedtime reading. But read again! And preferably read many times, for this book surely places the word ‘human’ at the heart of the development process and, because of that, is not only readable, it is an absolute joy.

Sen’s argument is simply encapsulated in the book’s title. As human beings change and as the societies in which they live transform, development can be measured, certainly perceived, and possibly achieved via greater life expectancy, access to education, improved gender and social equality, increasing population, technological progress, access to health care and a host of other life enhancing and enriching phenomena that all of us now seem to take for granted, bur, perhaps paradoxically, few societies actually achieve.

But for Sen, and this is the truly optimistic core of the book’s message, is that all of these identifiable and measurable phenomena are mere effects of a more fundamental cause. Development, for Amartya Sen, is about increasing human freedom. The concept includes freedom of choice, freedom to participate, freedom to express and in fact any freedom that might be exercised by an individual or community in the context of enhancing, not undermining, the wider social groups or societies in which the people live. There is undeniably something wider called society and it is thus society’s role to evaluate policy and practice to ensure that social and economic change enhance the sum of freedoms that people can claim.

But let it also be clear that this is no neo-liberal, individuality-is-God, markets-know-best diatribe. Development As Freedom is a concise, sometimes intense, but always sympathetic look at various aspects of economic and social change and the generality of development policy that can stimulate it. The point is that the human race and the societies in which it lives make progress for the common good when participation is widened, when inclusion rather than exclusion is the goal, when the whole range of human potential, rather than that of an elite in restricted roles, is allowed to blossom. And it is this overall message that makes the book such a positive and enriching experience.

Early on in the book, Sen sums up his approach by saying that “Poverty can be sensibly defined as capability deprivation…” and thus that the alleviation of poverty, in all its manifestations, allows human beings to develop whatever capabilities they might have, capabilities that would otherwise never be realised. Furthermore, greater social equality is more likely to provide opportunity for the development of this human potential than any other route.

In making his case, Amartya Sen deals the occasional body blow to a few nostrums. Reassessing Adam Smith from the original, Sen identifies that the original intellectual arguments on markets were at least partly aimed at countering the power and influence entrenched interests of the time. Now those would have certainly arisen out of the previous century’s tendency to grant and support monopolies. Sen thus casts Smith as least partly as a moderniser, who wanted to transform economic structures in order to transform society as he knew it. He also finds in Smith an admission that opportunity might have more to do with birthright than ability, or even availability of educational facilities. The champion of the market principle, as we now know him, is here not seen to claim that markets in themselves will always provide the most effective or efficient basis for economic interaction.

Sen also illustrates how so-called free markets might not work to the advantage of the majority. He cites an example of a Pareto-efficient system in which 1000 people each give up one dollar, without caring too much about the transaction. One person pockets the thousand dollars as profit and will clearly fight hard to retain such privileged status. When opinion about how the society transacts, it is likely that the individual who profits will speak loudly to maintain the status quo and, given the status of economic success, the person will also have access to the modes of expression needed. The thousand do, however, have the right to vote and so democracy is at the core of any approach to enhance freedom, but to be effective it has to function. Sen reminds us that there has never in human history been a famine in any democratic society with a free press.

Since development, in Sen’s vision, is about developing the capabilities of all people, it is clear that human development as a goal is first and foremost an ally of the poor, rather than the rich and powerful. Modernisation theory is thus merely a starting point for the process as Sen envisages it. But beyond this beginning it must continue until participation is increased and real democracy is achieved. Policy and practice should be continually evaluated to ensure the proper spread and effectiveness of their goals. Development As Freedom is much more than a description of what we are and from where we have come. It is nothing less than a far-sighted and clear prescription for political practice and provides a yardstick we might use to evaluate it.